The front page article of the Art section in the New York Times today is a feature piece about a highrise residential tower in Japan, scheduled for demolition. The building is called the Nakagin Capsule Tower, and is the most prominent example of the work of Kisho Kurokawa. Kurokawa was the most famous of the architects of the Metabolim movement, a post-war architecture philosophy that sought to introduce "flexible urban models for a rapidly changing society." It was all about creating design that was efficient with material and with space, design that fit into society but derived it's inspiration from the guts of society, from oil platforms and strands of dna.
The Nakagin Capsule Tower was one of the only completed buildings to come out of the Metabolism movement. It is composed of 140 concrete cubes, or capsules, that were constructed at a factory and bolted together at the site. This use of prefab construction and modular design were central to the ideas of Metabolism. Each capsule contained a small living chamber, with appliances built into the walls, a small bathroom resembling an airplane lavatory, and one giant porthole facing the world. The building has fallen into disrepair since its construction in 1972. Despite its modular nature, addition or replacement of capsules was cost prohibitive, and maintenance deteriorated. Its remaining inhabitants voted in 2007 to tear it down and replace it with a new, modern tower, one that would be free of leaks and drafts.
The focus of the NY Times article, however, is on the value of cultural legacy. The author makes a plea that the tower be preserved - renovated even - and left standing. The Nakagin Capsule Tower represents a philosophical and architectural foray into new territory. The Metabolists' grand visions may never have been realized, but they had an impact on the trajectory of architectural progress, and the Nakagin Tower, the last monument to their legacy, deserves to be left standing as a cultural recognition of the movement.
Ray Johnston shared a similar sentiment upon hearing the tower's fate: "The Architectural response to changing cultural conditions is exciting and sometimes dramatic. At many points in history the enthusiasm of the moment leads us away from the fundamentals of design and into territory that may not be appreciated in later years. The pull of more extreme conditions, however, always has an effect on the “center” of our built environment encouraging innovation and promoting progress. It is always a sad day when we lose adventuresome thought embodied in structure."
As architecture and design continue to evolve, we must continue to ask ourselves what deserves to be preserved, and what can be swept aside to make room for the next generation of structure. One of the challenges of the current movement toward the greening of buildings will be to quantify the value of buildings as holistically as we aim to build our new ones. Recycled content and energy use are two of the most popular metrics in building design these days - and they deserve to be - but while we will never stop valuing things like the aesthetic beauty of a structure, we must be careful not to neglect the historical, cultural, and emotional value present in many buildings.
In a class on global environmental policy I took, one of my professors told our us that the best way to stop global warming would be to cut down nearly all of the world's forests, and plant eucalyptus trees, which grow quickly and absorb a lot of carbon. The point of this scenario was to illustrate to us that in searching for a solution to any given problem, you have to make sure you understand what it is you value, and what you're trying to achieve. Because we cared deeply about conservation of biodiversity, the notion of cutting down forests was rediculous to us. In the same way, if as a society we decide that cultural and historical significance is worth protecting, we need to consider different solutions to the present situation - solutions that involve renovating and protecting Nakagin Capsule Tower.
(Pictures from Inhabitat, 2007).